The Los Angeles County Sheriff said on Tuesday that he was investigating a reporter at The Los Angeles Times who had reported allegations that he was involved in covering up a case of inmate abuse, an announcement that drew accusations that he was violating the reporter’s First Amendment rights.
The reporter, Alene Tchekmedyian, published an article on Monday detailing a legal claim filed by an officer, in which the officer accused Sheriff Alex Villanueva of blocking an investigation into the incident and retaliating against whistle-blowers.
Ms. Tchekmedyian also published security video footage of the incident, in which a police deputy handcuffed an inmate who had punched him in the face. Once the inmate was on the floor, the officer kept his knee on the inmate’s head for three minutes.
At a news conference on Tuesday, the sheriff said he was investigating “all parties” involved in the leaked video, which he said was “stolen property that was removed illegally.” He stood next to large photos of Ms. Tchekmedyian and two other people.
“What she receives illegally and the L.A. Times uses it, I’m pretty sure that’s a huge complex area of law and freedom of the press and all that,” Sheriff Villanueva said. “However, when it’s stolen material, at some point you actually become part of the story.”
Kevin Merida, the executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, said in a statement that “Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s attack on Alene Tchekmedyian’s First Amendment rights for doing newsworthy reporting on a video that showed a deputy kneeling on a handcuffed inmate’s head is outrageous.”
“His attempt to criminalize news reporting goes against well-established constitutional law,” Mr. Merida continued. “We will vigorously defend Tchekmedyian’s and The Los Angeles Times’s rights in any proceeding or investigation brought by authorities.”
Katie Townsend, the deputy executive director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said the investigation of a journalist because of her reporting violated the First Amendment.
“Publishing newsworthy information about an alleged law enforcement cover-up that sought to block an investigation into the use of excessive force is constitutionally protected activity, and is clearly in the public interest,” Ms. Townsend said. “We condemn the department’s actions in the strongest terms, and urge it to immediately drop this purported investigation.”
Ms. Tchekmedyian, who covers the sheriff’s department, broke the story on March 25 that Los Angeles County officials didn’t charge the inmate because they were worried the incident would generate negative publicity for its resemblance to the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died in May 2020 in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck.
Ms. Tchekmedyian’s article on Monday implicated Sheriff Villanueva as the one directing the cover-up.
At the news conference on Tuesday, Sheriff Villanueva denied the cover-up claims and said that he was investigating the leak of the video.
“We will not be the only party investigating this,” Sheriff Villanueva said. “There will be other agencies who will also be thoroughly investigating this and monitoring what we are doing. And it will be handed over to the appropriate prosecutorial agencies so they make a determination.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said in an email on Tuesday that the department was “unable to comment any further due to several active ongoing investigations, pending litigation, including a criminal investigation.”
“What we can say is Sheriff Alex Villanueva is committed to transparency and accountability,” the department said.